The Magazine

THE CRISIS OF MANLINESS

Aug 3, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 45 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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Fatherhood and manliness have always been closely connected, not only because fathering a child is a palpable proof of manhood, but also because fathers are supposed to provide their sons with a model of what to become. And yet, as a culture, we have never been more conflicted about what we mean by manhood.

In the recent Gen-X novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, a group of men in their twenties, stuck in jobs as office temps and couriers, relieve their boredom by meeting in the basement of a bar after hours and beating one another senseless. Sometimes they show up for work with black eyes and stitches as a warrior's badge of honor. Aside from their jobs -- white-collar, but holding out no clear career prospects -- what these young men have in common is that they are under-fathered, the product of divorce and of fathers who had no time for them. "I'm a 30 year old boy," says the novel's protagonist. "I knew my dad for about six years, but I don't remember anything. . . . What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women."

In the absence of a clear idea from their distant, distracted fathers of what it means to be a man, these frustrated youths react against their antiseptic jobs by reverting to the crudest "macho" violence. The club's founder, Tyler, progresses from consenting violence among buddies to murder, a slacker Raskolnikov. The novel is chillingly insightful about the unmapped psyche of young males in the nineties.

Given these signals from the culture, confirmed every day by real acts of mayhem, some hold that we should try to get rid of manliness altogether and make more rigorous efforts to create a genderless personality free of male violence. The recent horrific shooting in the Arkansas schoolyard, with little-boy killers waiting in their army fatigues to ambush their classmates and teachers, might suggest that they are right. Add to this the fact that the majority of violent crimes are committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 25, and there seems good reason for discouraging male children from embracing any notion of manly pride.

But it is not so simple. The last 30 years have witnessed a prolonged effort at social engineering throughout our public and educational institutions. Its purpose is to eradicate any psychological and emotional differences between men and women, on the grounds that any concept of manliness inevitably leads to arrogance and violence towards women and to rigid hierarchies that exclude the marginalized and powerless. This experiment was meant to reduce violence and tensions between the sexes. And yet, during this same period, "macho" violence and stress between men and women may well have increased. Recent crime statistics suggest as much in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom -- the countries where the feminist social experiment stigmatizing manliness has had the greatest latitude to prove itself.

As the recent book by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead confirmed, absent fathers are one of the strongest predictors of violence among young men in the United States, at least as important as poverty, lack of education, or minority status. The ease with which men of my baby-boomer generation have abdicated our roles as fathers is undoubtedly connected with feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Boomers were told that we shouldn't be hung up about providing masculine role models for children and should do whatever made us happiest, including escape an unsatisfying marriage. After all, to hold things together for the sake of the children would restrict both men and women to old-fashioned "patriarchal" responsibilities. The results of this hard, bright credo of selfishness are today's under-fathered young men, many of them from broken homes, prone to identify their maleness with aggression because they have no better model to go by.

This generation's experience is summed up in a brilliant, pathetic scene from Atom Egoyan's film Family Viewing. The central character, a teenaged boy, drifts in and out of his divorced father's house. The father is totally preoccupied with his relationship with a younger woman. The boy's only solid human contact is with his dying grandmother, shunted to a nursing home lest she spoil the father's swinging lifestyle. One day the boy digs out some family videos. At first, he sees a backyard barbecue with happy children and his parents when they were still together. Suddenly, the film jumps to the father and his new girlfriend having sex. The father simply taped over the family movies, literally erasing his son's connection with the only secure part of his childhood.